Here’s a Damn Good (and Kinda Creepy) Reason to Stop Littering

Now every litterbug must fear his own DNA.

If you have ever thought you could spit out your old piece of gum on the ground without notice, think again. Technology exists to help stop littering; it can hold you and every other litterbug accountable for dumping your trash on the streets.

According to Wired, a Hong Kong ad agency and non-profit, and Ogilvy, an American company, have teamed up to make an impressive (and kind of creepy) ad campaign that’s targeting litterbugs.

Ogilvy joined up with Hong Kong Cleanup, the nonprofit, to help curb Hong Kong’s massive trash problem. To combat the problem head-on, the firms recruited the help of Parabon Nanolabs, a Virginia company, that has figured out a way to use small traces of human DNA (as small as a nanogram, which is smaller than one billionth of the mass of a penny) to create realistic digital portraits of litterbugs.

“Parabon began developing this technology more than five years ago in tandem with the Department of Defense, mostly to use as a tool in criminal investigations,” reports Wired. “Parabon’s technique draws on the growing wealth of information we have about the human genome. By analyzing saliva or blood, the company is able to make an educated prediction of what you might look like. Most forensic work uses DNA to create a fingerprint, or a series of data points that will give a two-dimensional look at an individual that can be matched to pre-existing DNA samples.”

After DNA is detected, it’s taken to a genotyping lab and the data collection of the offending litterbug begins. The technology used can easily pin-point a person’s eye, hair, and skin color, as well as skin freckling, and face shape. To predict age range, Oglivy uses market research. According to Wired, people who are aged 18-34 are more likely to chew gum, and people who are 45-plus are more likely to be smokers.

Now, this all may seem a bit extreme to catch a litterbug, but that’s the whole point of an ad campaign. In reality, all the people in this project weren’t actually shamed — they gave permission for their likeness to be “published.” And this technology is now only strictly used from criminal investigations. But, like any good campaign, this thing worked and got people talking. Part of the conversation of course is about littering and the whole “if you aren’t anonymous, will you do it” idea. But it also tackles DNA appropriation… Two big conversations from one tiny campaign. It’s all pretty impressive.

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Image of chewing gum on street from Shutterstock

Abbie Stutzer

Writer, editor, and owner of Ginchy!, a freelance writing and editing company, and home funeral hub. Adores smart sex ed, sustainable ag, spooky history, women's health, feminism, horror, wine, and sci-fi.